After a few up and down seasons with the Marlins, Willis was traded to the Tigers as part of the Miguel Cabrera deal, and suffered a near complete collapse, stumbling around the Detroit and San Francisco minor league affiliates. Finally settling in with the Reds last season, Willis had another rough year, albeit one that may have looked worse than it really was. He brought his walk rate down to a somewhat acceptable 11.1%, and was able to induce groundballs at about a 55% clip, posting a SIERA of 4.29.
More importantly for the Phillies, who will have a newly-tendered Kyle Kendrick competing with Joe Blanton for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, Willis shows some indications of being an effective left-handed specialist. He has a 2.88 career xFIP versus left-handed hitters, and last year, in an admittedly small 60 hitter sample, struck them out at a 33.3% rate. The image below shows Willis’ pitch placement to left-handed hitting since 2009, and his groundball rate for the same scope. When Willis manages to stay away from the inside of the plate against lefties he keeps the ball on the ground successfully. Over the 191 plate appearances represented in this image, lefties managed just a .276 wOBA against Willis.
Of course, this is all predicated on Willis actually being used in this way. It’s tough to forget J.C. Romero, ostensibly the left-handed specialist, being brought to the mound to face 256 right-handed batters between 2008 and 2010, with results at once infuriating and comedic. Charlie Manuel’s bullpen management, insofar as any coherent strategy can be deciphered, appears to be a mix of innings-based decisions and traditional closer values, so if the D-train is left in for, say, an entire 6th or 7th inning, the likelihood that he’ll face right-handed hitting washes away any value he has to offer to the Phillies’ pen.
As it is, though, at around $1 million, Willis is a bargain flier for the Phillies, with the chance to effectively supplement a bullpen comprised of Jonathan Papelbon, Jose Contreras, and a group of young arms.